Nearly a week has passed since the Israeli elections, and more is still unknown than known about the outcome. Such uncertainty, of course, is common in Israel, where the actual elections serve only as a preliminary to the main event of cobbling together a governing coalition.
The leading party, Kadima, won only 29 seats, and thus will be a minority within the coalition that it heads. Once a coalition is formed, its long term stability remains very much in question.
As if the external threats and internal problems facing Israel were not enough, the new prime minister will have to deal with a fractious coalition and repeated threats by this or that party to leave the coalition. Among recent prime ministers, only Ariel Sharon, with nearly six decades of experience as a tactician, always made those threatening him blink first.
While little has been resolved so far, the days following the election have not been without their excitement. For one thing, at least five parties have witnessed their number of seats in the next Knesset go up or down in various recounts or discoveries of lost votes, and more changes are still possible before the final results are certified on Wednesday.
By far the most dramatic event was the effort by Labor Party head Amir Peretz to forge a coalition with right-wing and religious parties on so-called social issues that would have made Peretz the next prime minister, despite the fact that Labor won ten less seats than Kadima. Amazingly, the amalgamated National Union/National Religious Party did recommend that President Moshe Katsav give Peretz the mandate to form the next government, even though NU/NRP is the most right-wing party in the next Knesset and Peretz's political orientation is consistent with his origins in Peace Now..
Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu also showed interest in Peretz's offer, even though Netanyahu and Peretz were locked in perpetual conflict when Netanyahu was Finance Minister in the last government and Peretz the head of the Histadrut Labor Federation. The right-wing parties preferred Peretz's calls for negotiations with the Palestinians, which they are confident will go nowhere, to Ehud Olmert's plans for further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank.
In the end, it was Peretz's own Labor Party that called a halt to his gambit. Matan Vilnai termed the Peretz's maneuver "idiotic" and "completely illegitimate." Labor voters, he said, did not vote Labor in order to find it heading a right-wing and chareidi government. Vilnai's remark is an indication of the tremendous internal rifts in both of Israel's former leading parties – Likud and Labor – in the wake of their disappointing performance. Likud plummeted from 40 seats in the last elections to just 12, and the finger-pointing at party leader Netanyahu began even before the first ballot was cast.
Peretz himself undoubtedly realized from the start that his chances of forming such a coalition were miniscule, and was likely just trying to bring pressure on the presumptive new prime minister Ehud Olmert to give Labor the powerful the Finance Ministry. Despite Kadima's underwhelming victory, Olmert had insisted that it would keep the three most important ministries – Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Finance. Peretz, who had run primarily on a platform to reverse the economic reforms of Netanyahu's tenure, could obviously not accept that fiat without a fight.
For his part, Olmert had excellent reasons for being unwilling to give Peretz the finance ministry: he would likely plunge the country back into a recession. Peretz knows nothing about economics, and what he does know is wrong. His main economic prescription is raising the minimum wage, which would result only in a rise in unemployment, which decreased during Netanyahu's period as Finance Minister.
The Israeli stock market has already started to dip, as investors consider the expensive list of demands from various parties likely to join the coalition, including Labor, the Pensioners List, and Shas. The Pensioner's, for instance, are demanding the restoration of all the cuts in pensions under Netanyahu and a doubling of spending on the health basket of subsidized medicines. If met, these demands alone would be enough to sink the economy.
In the end, it appears that Olmert will have to give the Defense Ministry to Peretz, a move almost as irresponsible as handing him the keys to the Finance Ministry would have been. Peretz has neither the military nor an administrative background to prepare him for running the largest ministry.
WHAT DO THE ELECTIONS REVEAL? The one clear result of the elections is the further marginalization of the Israeli Right. Even the passions released by the Gaza withdrawal and the mistreatment of the evacuees were insufficient to push the newly combined National Union and National Religious Party above 11 seats. The combined Right of NU/NRP, Likud, and Israel Beiteinu won barely a quarter of the seats in the new Knesset. And neither Likud nor Israel Beiteinu ruled out further territorial concessions. The Israeli public has signed off on substantial territorial withdrawals on the West Bank, and is not terribly concerned about the fate of at least 80,000 settlers, who would lose their homes.
That does not mean, however, that Olmert won a mandate for his so-called "convergence" plan of further unilateral withdrawals. Polls show most Israelis opposing further unilateral withdrawals on the Gaza model. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said that there would be no more unilateral withdrawals. And even within Kadima, prominent figures such as ex-Shin Beit head Avi Dichter have rejected the Gaza model for the West Bank. Dichter argues that even if West Bank settlements were evacuated the Israeli army would have to remain behind to prevent a hostile government bringing its missiles in easy range of Israel's populous and vulnerable central region. Significantly, after first announcing that no party would be admitted to the coalition that did not agree to support his "convergence" plan, Olmert has now left any mention of "convergence" out of the coalition guidelines.
WHAT ABOUT THE CHAREIDI PARTIES? United Torah Judaism finally managed to increase it Knesset representation from five seats to six. That, however, was not an unmitigated triumph. With the overall voting rate very low by Israeli standards, the stage was set for a two seat jump in chareidi representation if chareidim turned out in their traditionally high percentage. They did not, and the reason was only partly explained by the decision of several subgroups in the chareidi population to sit out the election because their representative was not given a sure seat on the UTJ list.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that chareidi influence in the next Knesset will be far greater than in the previous one. The emerging Israeli consensus on security issues – i.e., deep skepticism about the possibility of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians coupled with a desire to shed large parts of the territory captured in 1967 – has resulted a dramatic decline in chareidi influence. As long as the Israeli public was almost equally balanced between the irreconcilable views of the Left and Right, chareidim frequently found themselves holding the balance of power within the governing coalition, and could always threaten to jump ship and tilt the balance to the other side. But with the traditional visions of both Right and Left in tatters, chareidim no longer hold the balance of power. We learned that in the last Knesset when Ariel Sharon had no trouble forming a government with no chareidi party.
Had Sharon remained healthy and Kadima polled over 40 seats, as projected at the time of his stroke, instead of the 29 that it ended up with, the trend towards decreased chareidi influence would have continued. But Olmert is in a far weaker position, and sees the chareidi parties as preferred coalition partners because they will be less likely to restrain his diplomatic maneuvers than would more ideological parties on the Right.
UTJ and Shas (with 12 seats) have further strengthened their bargaining power by agreeing to conduct joint coalition negotiations, as opposed to the past, where the two parties were often played off against each other. Discussions are also under way to form a joint parliamentary bloc as well. The combined 18 seats of the two parties would place it just behind Labor in size, and make it a powerful force in the new government.
Prior to the election, Olmert told the chareidi press that there would be no going back on cuts in child support allowances enacted by the previous government. But with the general focus of the new government on socio-economic issues, and the increased power of the chareidi parties, the stage is set for the return of at least part of the cuts in child allowances and in spending on Torah education.
Olmert is a long way from the confident figure who told a chareidi newspaper before the election that he would push forward civil marriage and expedite geirus for hundreds of thousands of non-Jews from the FSU. In that respect, at least, the elections brought some welcome news.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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